Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr publicly and privately is sending a message to his colleagues: He doesn’t want to be like Devin Nunes.
Burr has taken a series of steps over the last several months to make sure that his committee doesn’t devolve into the intense, partisan bickering that has consumed the House Intelligence Committee. And he has privately told confidants and members of the Senate Intelligence Committee he has no desire to emulate the House chairman’s tactics that have become a distraction to the Russia probe – while taking pains to avoid publicly discussing the Nunes memo alleging wrongdoing by the Justice Department over how it obtained a surveillance warrant on a Trump adviser.
But Burr has bluntly said he doesn’t think Nunes’ memo had to be made public.
“I don’t think there was any need for a memo to be released,” the North Carolina Republican said in the Capitol.
Burr’s public break from Nunes has surprised some of his Democratic critics, who thought he would carry the water of the Trump administration while leading the Russia probe. Instead, he’s become a major wild card, raising questions about whether he’ll ultimately conclude there was a concerted effort between Russians and the Trump campaign to collude in the 2016 elections – or join his GOP colleagues in saying there’s nothing there.
For now, the Senate committee is punting on that thorny issue, saying it is still investigating whether any collusion occurred with Russia.
And the committee is taking steps aimed at showcasing its bipartisan credentials, preparing to hold an open hearing and release a report highlighting election vulnerabilities as soon as next month – around the time of the early primaries – which will include recommendations to states, localities and the federal government.
Conflicts on some key issues
Despite the public show of bipartisanship, the committee is at loggerheads on some key issues: namely, bringing Trump associates back to the panel for additional interviews in coming weeks. After staff members interviewed Trump officials, Democrats have demanded that senators have a chance to grill them in person, including Donald Trump Jr., adviser Jared Kushner and attorney Michael Cohen.
After Burr publicly promised with Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee’s ranking Democrat, to hold a public hearing with Cohen, he has yet to move on holding one. Plus some Democrats on the committee, like Oregon’s Ron Wyden, have publicly criticized its leadership for not “following the money” in the Russia investigation, by looking at any Trump financial ties with Russia.
Moreover, Burr has faced public pressure from conservatives who want the Russia probe to end, as well as from President Donald Trump himself.
“Why Isn’t the Senate Intel Committee looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up-FAKE!” Trump tweeted in October.
Some Democrats on the committee have complained publicly and privately that Burr is not moving fast enough to public hearings, and concerns have been raised at various points that the probe is understaffed, given the committee’s other oversight responsibilities.
Wyden said Monday that he’s “very troubled” at the lack of public hearings.
“I think we’ve had one since June, and I’ve made that point to both the chair and ranking minority member now on a number of occasions,” Wyden said. “I think particularly on the follow-the-money issues you’ve really got to step it up.”
Burr frequently swats away questions about the Russia investigation, but at an open committee hearing Tuesday on global threats with senior intelligence officials, he gave a lengthy speech detailing what the committee is doing and touting its bipartisan approach.
“The remarks of every individual who has come in before us has commented on their professionalism, and the fact that at the end of eight hours they couldn’t tell who was a Democrat and who was a Republican,” Burr said. “So the effort to be bipartisan has not just been public, it is private as well. And it permeates all the way down through our staff.”
Burr noted that the committee has not released witness testimony, keeping a tight lock on what it has learned in its yearlong probe – leaving unsaid that the House Intelligence and Senate Judiciary committees have not done the same in their own Russia probes.
So far, Burr and Warner have publicly stayed on the same page. While Warner has been calling for public hearings, he’s been careful to stay on Burr’s side that the investigation has to reach a certain point before the hearings will be held.
“Let’s take one step at a time,” Warner said Monday. “First is the election security issue, and that we’ve got to get that out before the primaries get started.”
A source close to the committee said the investigation hasn’t reached the point of public hearings yet because the panel has closed-door witness interviews scheduled into March.
Flying under the radar
Republicans on the committee have praised Burr’s handling of the probe. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said Burr has been successful at keeping the panel’s investigation on track where other committees have faltered.
“That’s not been an easy task, and I give him credit for avoiding the landmines and potholes that have tripped up other investigations,” Collins said.
Burr has taken pride in flying under the radar as his committee has interviewed more than 100 witnesses. The interviews have taken place behind closed doors with staff members – rather than lawmakers posing the questions, like the House committee – which has angered some members, who say they want a chance to interview key witnesses. But information is kept so tightly guarded that members of the committee rarely know the full witness list on any given day.
That approach has sometimes paid off: Former FBI Director James Comey has testified only before the Senate Intelligence Committee since he was fired last spring, and the Senate panel was the only one able to talk to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort before he was indicted last fall by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Internal conflict is not just a House issue, either, as the Senate Judiciary Committee has at times been riled by partisanship in its own Russia investigation, with Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, issuing a criminal referral to the Justice Department without consulting the Democrats, and ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California unilaterally releasing the transcript of a closed-door hearing.
Burr has made sure to keep his distance from the controversies involving the other Hill committees – particularly Nunes’. Last year, when the California Republican took a trip to the White House to brief Trump about accusations that Obama administration officials had improperly “unmasked” Trump associates in classified intelligence reports, Burr demurred.
“The unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes, and I’ll wait to go through our full evaluation to see if there was anything improper that happened,” Burr told CNN at the time.
And after Nunes and other Republicans sharply criticized the FBI over missing text messsages between two FBI agents who have become a source of major conservative criticism, Burr again demurred. He said it appeared to be a “technical glitch” and that the FBI had been cooperative with his panel’s many other requests.
When the Nunes memo was first drafted, Burr’s staff was denied access to it. Since then, Burr has yet to comment on the allegations or their accuracy, despite being one of the few members of Congress with access to the underlying classified intelligence documents.
“It’s Devin’s memo, so you need to ask him what it means,” Burr said.
Burr wants to get the election security recommendations out next month, when the primaries start, and he said his committee will also soon put out its review of the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But he’s not putting a timeline on when the committee will wrap up its investigation into possible collusion.
“We will continue to work toward conclusions related to any cooperation or collusion by any individual, campaign or company with efforts to influence the outcome of elections or to create societal chaos in the United States,” Burr said Tuesday.